The last few months have been tough on pinball fans. In October 1999, WMS Industries killed its Williams/Bally pinball division. This was sad news, as Williams was the creator of some of the best tables of the last decade, including The Addams Family and Twilight Zone. Likewise, Pro Pinball publisher Empire Interactive announced that Fantastic Journey will be the last Pro Pinball game. While the two recent Pro Pinball tables (Timeshock and Big Race USA) may not have been classics like Williams' best, they were still excellent tables simulated in astonishing detail. Fortunately, the reportedly final pinball game from Empire and developer Cunning Developments is as accurate a simulation as its predecessors, but it has one problem: The table just isn't as fun.
Since the release of Timeshock, the Pro Pinball series has been deservedly praised for its attention to detail. Like Timeshock, the Fantastic Journey table is modeled down to every moving part, every screw, and every flashing light. The detail is so remarkable that it's enjoyable simply to enter the table-view mode and zoom in on the various areas. The game is played with the full table in view (there's no option for old-style scrolling), and you have three elevation angles to choose from. Playing the game couldn't be more straightforward; you use the CTRL keys to activate the flippers and the space bar to nudge the table.
Like other Pro Pinball games, Fantastic Journey is as much a simulation of owning an actual pinball table as it is a game. The designers have attempted to give you total control over the game: You have access to the operator's menu so you can change replay scores, check incredibly detailed factual histories, and so forth. You can even increase the number of balls per game from the standard three to ten.
The options don't end at the operator's menu. You can also adjust the table slope, the flipper power, and the amount of wear on the machine. This last option is the most interesting, but it doesn't actually have much effect on the game. Even if you set the wear to the "neglected" setting, there's no visual change to the machine, and the changes to how the table plays will be negligible to all but the most sensitive players.
The graphics are photo-realistic, and the flashing lights and visual effects (including the game's display-screen video games) are great without being overbearing. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the sound effects. While the mechanical sounds for bumpers, flippers, and the like are excellent, the table's digitized voices and music are annoying to the point of distraction.
The table itself is good, but not as good as Big Race USA or Timeshock. You have a standard selection of ramps, bumpers, and table-specific gadgets, the latter of which are built on the Jules Verne-esque retro science-fiction theme of the table. However, there's nothing too inventive about the table design, and even the gadgets perform relatively basic functions. Casual pinball fans may even find the design of the table somewhat frustrating; like Big Race USA, the Fantastic Journey table is designed for experienced players, as a few of the target shots require incredible precision.
It would have been interesting to see a simulated table that took into account all of the recent innovations in pinball, such as the implementation of computer graphics in Bally's Revenge from Mars. And Pro Pinball's developers have already proven that they can simulate a pinball game with incredible accuracy, so an accurate simulation of a somewhat generic table isn't quite as impressive as it used to be. But in this dark age of pinball, its fans must be happy with what they can get. And Pro Pinball: Fantastic Journey supplies all the realism and most of the fun, even if it lacks much in the way of innovation.